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Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Slump-busting Heat now NBA's second best

By Brian Windhorst



MIAMI -- The Miami Heat live in a world of constant expectations, some they have created themselves and some they cannot control.

Since the All-Star break they have been struggling somewhat, especially when compared to the remarkable nine-game winning streak they had before it, during which they blew out every team they faced. Going by that standard, the Heat are a team very much in search mode.

But their ability to avoid some more losses and defend their home court is keeping them in good playoff position despite what could be called a slump.

Tuesday night they faced a streaking Phoenix Suns team that had a 10-point lead with seven minutes to play. The Suns, winners of eight of their previous 10 games, were getting production from no less than 10 players and running some excellent offense by sharing the ball and hitting the Heat endlessly with pick-and-rolls.

The Heat rescued themselves, however, with a furious defensive-based finish, closing the game on a 19-5 run for a 99-95 win. It was the third time in the past four home games that the Heat have come from down double figures to win. It was also the 14th straight home victory overall, tying the longest such streak in the league this season.

“The positive is we don’t panic and are able to stay the course to grind our way back in,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We don’t want to fall prey to the light switch, that’s a dangerous thing.”

The coach is right to withhold all praise for a spate of comeback wins; that’s not a preferred method. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t merit within them.

Mike Miller has missed the past five games with a sprained ankle. Center Joel Anthony missed Tuesday’s game with a sprained ankle, forcing the Heat to alter their big man lineups. LeBron James struggled offensively after suffering an elbow injury in the first half.

Meanwhile, the Heat’s bench has been inconsistent of late while starting point guard Mario Chalmers has encountered his first slump of the season. Tuesday he had another poor showing, scoring one point in 32 minutes.

Yet with timely flourishes like the Heat had in the fourth quarter -- Dwyane Wade put three poor quarters behind him and scored 11 of his 19 points in the fourth while Chris Bosh had eight of his 29 points -- they have won five of the past seven games.

That has been good enough to get them to the second-best record in the league at 33-11, slipping past the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder, who lost to the Jazz in Utah Tuesday. It also kept them within reach of the Chicago Bulls for the top spot.

The Heat play both teams two more times in the final 21 games of the season, starting Sunday night in Oklahoma.

“We’re a much more confident team and understand we can make up points pretty quickly,” Wade said. “Not saying we want to do that every game.”

At some point the Heat will have to rediscover the rhythm they had before the All-Star break if they want to reach their goals. If not in the margin of victory area then certainly in getting more consistent efforts from their role players. Their offensive output, once perhaps their greatest strength, has also sagged as Tuesday was the seventh time in nine games they failed to crack 100 points.

But those issues haven’t cost them too many games. In this unusual season, where teams have to fight through more rough patches than usual because of the number of games in fewer days, perhaps getting through this period without too many blemishes could pay off down the line.

“There were a lot of games like these that we would’ve lost last year,” Bosh said. “We had to find a way to win. It’s been that way for the last couple of weeks and I’m just really proud of everybody for sticking with it.”